Personally I find it less tacky to invite a few friends over for cake and coffee on your birthday than to ask someone else to arrange a birthday party for you at their expense.
I'm in a very mobile field, so I tend to move every few years. As a result, I tend to spend birthdays several thousand kilometers from the nearest person who is going to actually note and remember the date. Trust me, spending your birthday alone in your apartment eating take-out is pretty depressing, and if I don't say anything myself, that is guaranteed to happen.
The standard among my friends is to say outright "It's my birthday next Tuesday" and to go out for drinks or a modest dinner. Generally, a few friends will go together and get you a book or a DVD or something like that, and a card.
Paying varies. In North America, it was pretty standard that everyone else would cover the cost of the birthday dinner. It averaged out over the year so that everyone got treated for their birthday. At the moment, I'm in an aggressively multi-cultural institute in Asia, and it usually comes to a fight between the birthday person, who wants to pay for everyone, and the rest who want to cover his/her meal. Usually we compromise on one way for dinner and the other for drinks.